Mario Alvarez is a full-time OHMA student. In this post, he writes about the Prison Public Memory Project and the ethical issues that arise between oral history and public-facing work.
On Thursday, April 21st, 2016, we OHMA students were treated to a workshop led by three leaders of the Prison Public Memory Project. These three individual had distinct responsibilities for the organization: Tracy Huling, the founder, directs and writes; Brian Buckley, the site coordinator, does digital humanities work; Quintin Cross does vital work connecting the organization with the local African-American Community. These members took the time to speak to us about their project and about the challenges that arise out of addressing the role that the local prisons play in this community. I was struck by the collaborative approach of their project – even during this two-hour workshop, Tracy, Brian, and Quintin approached the audience as equals with the potential to improve their already impressive work.
The Public Prison Memory Project, in addressing issues of incarceration and racial inequality, are handling some sensitive issues. Implementing oral histories is integral to their efforts to preserve the history of the local prisons – the personal testimonies of former prison employees (and prisoners) paint a fuller picture of what these institutions (and their surrounding areas) were like. The project deserves commendation for addressing the nuanced and oft-forgotten topic of prison towns (and ex-prison towns). I also admired our guests’ openness about the moral gray areas that arise out of this sort of work.
Brian and Quintin each took time to explain their contributions to this project in detail. Brian presented a shortened history of the New York State Training School for Girls, a reformatory school for young women that closed in the mid 1970s (it is now a prison for young males). It was during this presentation that Brian complicated people’s typical understanding of prison towns, showing us that although the prison was home to an (unspoken) history of abuse, it was also a large employer for the town that helped create an African-American middle class in the community.
Quintin, whose ties to Hudson go back several generations, spoke of his personal connection to the community. He was responsible for bringing in many of the narrators featured on the project’s website, most of whom had worked for the NYS Training School for Girls decades ago. He spoke in further detail about the school’s treatment of its prisoners of color, who were subject to harsher conditions than their white counterparts. He revealed to us that there was a widespread code of silence among black employees in the prison, many of whom chose not to speak out on the various inequalities that occurred there for fear of losing their well-paying government jobs.
Then Tracy opened up the floor to us, the audience. We were split into two groups, each tasked with a different case study. Each of these scenarios were real-life ethical quandaries that the organization is currently facing in balancing the aforementioned code of silence among former prison workers and the project’s desire to bring a history of inequality to light.
When reflecting on these case studies, I couldn’t help but come back to an overarching question: where does one draw the line between one’s efforts towards social justice and one’s allegiance to his or her narrators? Can one be both a fully-committed activist and a full-time oral historian? This is something that we as students often tackled in class during this past academic year. Our conversations, though enlightening, failed to settle on a clean way of addressing this tension. This project hopes to “unlock the future” (per the home page on their website), revealing its public-facing aspirations, but I cannot help but wonder if oral history, when compared to more journalistic approaches to interviewing, can sometimes an obstacle to these hopes.
That being said, I was glad to be in the audience for this workshop. It opened up a number of challenging questions, the kinds that can only arise in difficult projects like this one. I look forward to hearing future developments from the Prison Public Memory Project.